The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden pledged to stop building the wall. But he just won the right to seize a Texas family’s land for it.

Jose Alfredo “Fred” Cavazos talks to his cousin Rey Anzaldua while fishing in the Rio Grande on his family's land in Mission, Tex., in 2018. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

For years, the Cavazos family has battled the federal government for their land in South Texas, tucked along the winding Rio Grande and passed down since before that river became an international boundary.

They fought the Bush and Obama administrations to preserve the property from border fencing. When Trump pushed to erect “a big, beautiful wall,” the family delayed court proceedings to wait out his plans.

But just when they thought they’d won a reprieve, it was President Biden — not Trump — who would end up defeating the family in their years-long fight for the ranch.

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled the federal government had the right to condemn about 6½ acres of Cavazos land through eminent domain. After Biden pledged “not another foot” of border wall would be constructed, it is a breach of faith for dozens of private Texas landowners along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We took him at his word,” one family member, Reynaldo Anzaldua Cavazos, told The Washington Post. “He is not keeping that word.”

The White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. attorneys representing the federal government did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.

In a statement to CNN, the Justice Department said it had sought to postpone “pending cases, including in this case, in which the government had previously filed motions for possession of land on the southwest border.” The case was postponed in February at the government’s request, but apparently the DOJ did not attempt to delay it a second time before the judge’s ruling.

Trump’s border wall threatens to end Texas family’s 250 years of ranching on Rio Grande

The Cavazos family has laid a claim to property in the Rio Grande since the 1760s, when their ancestors arrived on a Spanish land grant of more than half a million acres. Various sales and taxes eventually shrank down the area, including to a 77-acre ranch now mostly used to raise cattle and chickens and rented out for recreational fishing.

During George W. Bush’s second term, federal officials began seizing private land in the Rio Grande Valley to wall off this part of the border, a common crossing point for migrants. In 2008, Anzaldua Cavazos reached a compromise on plans at a separate piece of family land up the river, pushing back the wall onto nearby flood levees.

But by the time Trump assumed office, securing millions of dollars in funding from Congress for a border wall, the ranch became a target. The family was flooded with letters from the federal government, asking to survey and eventually purchase a slice of the property.

Like many other landowners in the area, they kept saying no. So the Trump administration turned to the courts, filing in August to seize part of the property under eminent domain.

Authorities launched similar condemnation efforts on land throughout the region during Trump’s last full month in office. By the time Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20, more than 215 landowners in the Rio Grande Valley were facing suits from the federal government, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“This had been a long fight, and we thought we had cleared the finish line after the inauguration,” said Roberto Lopez, a community organizer with the group, which has represented the Cavazos family.

Trump’s unfinished border wall faces uncertain future after Biden pledge to freeze construction

At first, that indeed appeared to be the case. Biden on his first day in office issued a 60-day pause on all border wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, ordering officials to study how to best repurpose existing contracts and funds.

In February, a collection of Texas advocacy groups and area residents penned a letter to the Biden administration, demanding he make the pause permanent, dismiss all pending lawsuits and return any lands that had previously been taken.

After the Justice Department asked for a continuance, the Cavazos case was extended into April. But on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez ruled that the Biden administration “is entitled to immediate possession of the Subject Property,” citing the government’s need for “urgency of possession.”

The ruling clears the way for the federal government to do what it wants with the land. The border wall encroaches on the east and west ends of the ranch, leaving a gap where Cavazos’s cousins graze cattle, where they rent lots to people who like to fish, boat and enjoy the river, and where the family’s heritage is ingrained in the alluvial soil of the river delta.

Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the companies building the barrier, previously told The Post that it is unclear what will happen to private land seized by the government along the border. The Biden administration can renounce its claims for any property it has obtained but not yet paid for, the agencies said.

But Lopez worries there are no plans to do so. If that is the Biden administration’s intent, he asked, why hadn’t they pulled out of the case entirely?

“All I can do is just read the tea leaves,” he said, but “we fear that this [wall construction] could be used as a bargaining chip to maybe give a little something in order to get other immigration measures passed.”

Meanwhile, Anzaldua Cavazos said the move smacks of the racism his family and many other Mexican Americans and Tejanos have long endured in the borderlands when it came to protecting their land claims from Anglo settlers and the federal government.

Although the ruling leaves him with little, if any recourse, he hasn’t been dissuaded from protesting a government and wall that, for him, symbolizes hate.

“I’m an old man, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be here,” said Anzaldua Cavazos, who is in his 70s. “But for as long as I have left, I’m going to be working toward tearing down this wall.”

Hernández reported from San Antonio.